Published: May 2009
By Calvin Trillin
On his second visit to Tonga, Calvin Trillin ponders the International Date Line—and where he might want to find himself on December 31, 1999.
Well, yes, I suppose I did enjoy telling people we were going "back to Tonga." No, I did not allow myself to add, "When we were there thirty years ago, no one had ever heard of Tonga"—although you could argue that my restraint had something to do with the fact that a lot of people still haven't. When I spread the word that we were returning to Tonga, there were quizzical looks even after I tossed out some Tongan facts to jog the memory. "Does Polynesian kingdom ring a bell?" I'd say. "Sometimes known as the Friendly Islands?" Still nothing. I found only one fact about Tonga that could bring a flicker of recognition, at least if the person addressed was of a certain age: In the 1953 coronation procession in London, it was the late monarch of Tonga, a magisterial six-footer named Queen Salote, who, alone among the visiting dignitaries, refused to cover her carriage after rain began to fall, observing Tongan custom that would have considered such an act disrespectful to Queen Elizabeth. As Salote rode through the downpour, her gesture was widely admired—although apparently not by the thoroughly drenched Malay sultan who'd been assigned to share the carriage.
Of course, I was aware of the pitfalls involved in returning somewhere after a 30-year absence. Both my wife and I had loved Tonga. What was meant to be a brief stopover between Fiji and American Samoa had been transformed into a week's stay through the vagaries of South Pacific air transportation in 1968 (I remember saying, "Polynesian Airlines' fleet of plane has failed to arrive"), and we'd always remembered our visit as the happiest of accidents.
The capital, Nukualofa, with its low wooden buildings and arcades and unpaved streets, looked like the sort of place John Wayne might mosey into after a cattle drive, except that on the edge of town, facing the harbor, there was what appeared to be a large Victorian summer-house: the royal palace. Houses in the villages were mostly fales, traditional Tongan structures with woven-mat walls and thatched roofs. Even the smallest village had two or three more substantial structures that turned out to be churches; Tonga had received the full brunt of the Methodists' 19th-century missionary assault, not to speak of a mopping-up operation carried out decades later by the Mormons. Nearing a village, we'd detect a noise resembling the steady pounding heard when carpenters are framing in houses; it was the sound of wooden mallets beating out the underbark of mulberry trees to make tapa cloth. Glued together in panels the size of a tennis court, the cloth would be decorated with woodblocks and then colored in a stunning array of browns.
Places other than Tonga make tapa, but that's like saying places other than Belgium make pommes frites. From our first trip we still have a gorgeous piece of tapa covering a 15-foot wall. Its pattern includes birds and lions and a coat of arms and (depicted horizontally, for some reason) the towering Norfolk Island pines that grow next to the Tongan royal palace. To this day, when I pass our tapa cloth, I'm reminded of the glories of serendipity.
In 1968, Tongan tourism amounted to an occasional stop by a cruise liner, allowing at most a viewing of the spectacular blowholes off the coast of the main island and a visit to Tonga's colony of the fruit bats known as "flying foxes." Only a year or so before our arrival, a simple but perfectly comfortable hotel called the International Dateline had been built as part of the preparations for the coronation of Queen Salote's son, an imposingly large man named Taufaahau Tupou IV, who assumed the throne after his mother's death. The hotel's name reflected Tonga's pride in being the first country west of the International Date Line, and thus "where the day begins."
We had the hotel almost to ourselves. In fact, as guests who customarily took our meals there—alternatives were not apparent—we were included in whatever event was being held in the capital's fanciest public space. I remember taking in the Miss Nukualofa Contest, won by Miss Friendly Island Biscuits. The presence of the International Dateline Hotel made Tonga the dream combination of a certain type of American traveler—an unspoiled place where you had your own bathroom.
We were under no illusions about any place remaining unchanged for 30 years. Fiji, which hadn't been an obvious tourist destination in 1968, now has so many sophisticated beach resorts that I've heard it called "a faraway Hawaii." But on those rare occasions over the years when a press item on Tonga caught my eye, the subject tended to be some scheme that did not involve hotels or resorts. King Taufaahau Tupou IV, still on the throne at 80, is a man of many ideas, and a tiny country with sovereignty and great beauty but no obvious way to make a living tends to attract other people with ideas. A scheme to grow a type of squash prized by the Japanese sounded promising. A national fitness program sounded sensible, particularly when led by the king, who dropped a hundred pounds or two himself as an example. A proposal to store hazardous waste sounded hazardous. A program that permitted the selling of Tongan passports sounded questionable. A scheme to turn salt water into natural gas sounded—well, cockamamie.
The only mention of tourism had been fairly recent: speculation that, since Tonga is where the day begins, people who want to be the first to see in the new millennium might transform Nukualofa into a sort of saltwater Times Square on New Year's Eve 1999. Our concerns that Tonga might have gone the way of Fiji evaporated, though, when we learned that the International Dateline was still probably where we should stay in Nukualofa, even though the hotel, which is run by the government, apparently is not keen on renovating between coronations. Checking in again, after an absence of 30 years, I said to my wife, with great relief, "This is definitely the place. I think I recognize that carpet."
On the grassy strip between the hotel and Nukualofa Harbor, the Bank of Tonga has erected a TONGA 2000 sign reading WHERE THE NEW MILLENNIUM BEGINS. The same motto was on T-shirts in the hotel's gift shop. Tonga seemed to be treating the dawn of the third millennium as a rare opportunity to shine—its first big publicity break since the rain fell on Queen Salote. It's true that as 2000 approaches, other places are claiming that the break belongs to them. Kiribati has some territory close to the Date Line, although its tourist facilities apparently make Nukualofa seem like Waikiki. On New Zealand's Chatham Island you could see the sun sooner than on Tonga, at least if you were standing on a mountain. But have these other places been calling themselves "Where the Day Begins" for decades?Do they have a beer whose motto is "The First Beer in the World Every Day"?
No, I think it's safe to say that celebrators will be heading for Tonga, even though it appears that there will be no place for them all to stay. No new hotels seemed to be under construction, and most of the existing hotels claim to have been block-booked for the big week by outfits such as First Dawn Celebration, which plans to fly a jumbo jet full of people to Tonga for New Year's Eve and then hop over to Samoa, just across the Date Line, to do it all over again. A man from the Tongan Visitors Bureau told me that a number of people would be coming by boat; 14 cruise liners are already scheduled to be in Nukualofa Harbor on the big night. And what will the entertainment be?There are still meetings being held to decide that, he said, although it seems to be clear that the king, who is churchy in the Tongan way, would like to have 2,000 Tongans singing Handel's Messiah at the year 2000.
The visitors' bureau man told me that one millennium luxury cruise from Honolulu will supposedly cost $42,000 per passenger. He said it's rumored that George Bush and Barbra Streisand have already made their reservations, and he asked me whether that sounded plausible. I told him that I'd treat that rumor with some skepticism, although I did see a touch of verisimilitude in the fact that neither Henry Kissinger nor Barbara Walters had been mentioned. He also told me some of the ideas a millennium committee is considering: A marathon. A huge Tongan feast. Twenty-four hours of fireworks. One idea he found particularly interesting was to have Bill Gates and King Taufaahau Tupou IV interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. "Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, whose products represent the future, and the king is the last remaining South Pacific monarch," the visitors' bureau man said, in case I hadn't caught the symmetry. "What do you think?"
"I think it's an excellent idea," I said.
"Do you think Oprah would come?"
I told him that when Oprah was being sued by the beef industry, she did her show from Amarillo for six weeks, so it wasn't as if she lacked an adventurous spirit. The visitors' bureau man seemed pleased.
The role of the International Dateline Hotel had apparently not changed between our visits. In the area where events are held, I noticed a banner for the International Water Week festivities. Since we'd arrived a month or so before the summer season, we had the hotel almost to ourselves again. Tonga still attracts only 25,000 or so tourists a year. Some hotel proprietors blame that on transportation difficulties caused partly by an effort to protect Royal Tongan Airlines. Tourist officials think there's too much competition from places like Tahiti. Some analysts of the Tongan political structure think that the king, who presides over what is close to a feudal society, has a limited enthusiasm for attracting foreigners with their foreign ideas. It's also true that Tonga has taken some knocks from travel writers, a subject I bring up reluctantly, the way you might bring up the unkind Broadway reviews of a play for which you acquired an almost proprietary affection in out-of-town tryouts.
Nukualofa has been called down-at-the-heels. It now has paved streets and several buildings sufficiently large and modern to irritate any cinematographer trying to shoot a western. At times, the traffic moves slowly. At times, young men who haven't found their place in the cash economy and haven't left to seek work in New Zealand or Hawaii gather in small, bored groups on the street corners. The hurricane of 1982 finished off most of the traditional Tongan fales, and many villagers took advantage of an aid program that provided a simple wooden house for $600. A visitor to the main island of Tongatapu who wants to get a feel for Tongan village architecture is directed to the Tongan National Centre, which was built with help from the Japanese.
Some people who'd written about Tonga since our first visit had been put off by the Tongans themselves. Tongans are handsome people, often quite large in stature. They tend to move in a deliberate way that some foreigners find dignified and some foreigners—those who happen to be in a different mood or in a terrible hurry—find passive-aggressive. Tongans do not snap to. They are unapologetic about customs that are not always convenient for visitors—such strict observance of the Sabbath, for instance, that the Nukualofa airport shuts down from midnight Saturday night until Monday morning. It is not unusual for a Tongan to attend church three or four times on Sunday. The Tongan writer Epeli Hauofa, who writes satirically about his country in the tone early V. S. Naipaul novels employed to write about Trinidad's East Indian community, has offered one theory to explain why Tongans do not demonstrate more get up and go: they work so hard on the Sabbath that they have to use the other six days as days of rest.
However many times they go to church on Sunday, Tongans are often described as much more Tongan than Christian—devoted to the Polynesian extended family, more interested in sharing than in striving, willing to accept a caste system that divides people between nobles and commoners. On this trip to Tonga, we still heard tapa cloth being beaten out, in fales built behind wooden houses. Even the students of a small college that emphasizes subjects like Socratic philosophy gather on Friday nights to drink kava, a mildly narcotic South Pacific drink; they sit silently on the floor until someone starts one of the chantlike songs that Tongans sing with harmonizing that seems so natural as to be genetic.
We spent the Sunday we were in Tonga reacquainting ourselves with Tongatapu, catching a few bars of hymn-singing whenever we passed through a village. We revisited the blowholes, watching the jets of water spring out of the coral one after another every time a wave hit—like a line of Yellowstone geysers that had finally learned to go off in formation. After some roaming around, we found the flying foxes, which had relocated after the 1982 storm disturbed their food supply; they still looked like tiny foxes that somehow found it entertaining to pull a black cape around themselves and hang upside down in a tree.
That morning, we'd gone to church—to the Centenary Chapel, a concrete building that, except for a couple of narrow stained-glass windows high above the pulpit, might be taken for a large gymnasium. We arrived half an hour before the 10 o'clock service, lured in by the hymns. The entire congregation was singing, with the young women from Queen Salote College, dressed in white blouses and blue pinafores, taking the lead. The church holds 2,000 people, and it was obviously going to be nearly full. Three sides of the building were pretty much open to the outdoors, and we could see families approaching. The children were in Western Sunday best. The women, their hair pulled back in buns, mainly wore long print dresses. The men were in crisp long-sleeved shirts and the ankle-length wraparounds called tupenus, which tend to come in colors that might have been selected by a Milanese designer—pearl gray or rich chocolate brown or deep blue. Almost all adults wore the traditional pandanus matting around the waist—in some cases mats no larger than a cummerbund, in some cases mats the length of a skirt. Even congregants who were approaching the building just before 10 walked in the customary erect, stately pace. Watches were not looked at; children were not hurried along. Inside, congregants fanned themselves with mat fans and sang hymn after hymn, including a Tongan-language version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The harmony was magnificent. If someone were hovering on the edge, I whispered to my wife, it was a scene that could make a believer out of him.
I've always divided beach resorts between those where you're tempted to take home some of the soap and those where you're sort of sorry you didn't bring any soap from home. Tonga isn't likely to have the first kind—as if commenting on that fact, Fiji's Air Pacific hands out souvenir cakes of coconut soap to its business-class passengers on the way to the kingdom—but some fine versions of the second kind had been built on Tonga's outer islands since our previous visit. Whatever they lack in aromatic lather they make up for, it seems to me, in their ability to exist without destroying their surroundings. Atata, a small island off Tongatapu, is amiably shared by a pleasant resort and a fishing village. The voices of a few locals who entertain in the resort's dining room blend beautifully, and so do the voices of the schoolchildren who reward visitors to their class with a song or two.
The Haapai Group, with one beach resort and some guesthouses, remains the sort of place where the single road crosses the airport runway, and shops are corrugated iron sheds with arcades to protect customers from the sun. On the island of Foa, after a morning of being alone on what seemed to me a perfect beach with snorkeling reefs just offshore and more gorgeous seashells than you could ever gather, we took a walk with the owner of the small resort where we were staying. The route included the wild shore facing the Tonga Trench, one of the deepest parts of the Pacific, and then a trek through what seemed to be a jungle but was actually agricultural plots devoted to complicated mixtures of the various root plants and other vegetables that Tongans traditionally grow. Toward the end of our walk, when we were feeling the need of a refresher, three young men who'd been reef fishing were kind enough to send one of their number up a coconut tree and then, with a few whacks of a machete, provide each of us with a coconut full of milk ready for drinking.
From my window at the International Dateline a few mornings later, I watched some other fishermen arrange their catch on a jetty—a lot of snapper, some parrot fish almost as brightly colored as the ones I'd seen underwater in Haapai, a turtle whose shell was two feet across. People were strolling along the seawall path, and a few—participants, perhaps, in the king's fitness program—were jogging. I looked out over palm trees and frangipani. I could see the islands off Tongatapu. On the grassy strip, I could see the tonga 2000 sign. It wasn't that difficult to imagine a harbor full of cruise ships on the big night. The celebrators are out on the decks, taking in the fireworks. George Bush might be asking Barbra Streisand if she'd do just one more chorus of "People" before midnight strikes. The more I thought about the scene, the more I thought I might even be there myself. After all, I'd travel almost any distance to hear 2,000 Tongans sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," let alone Handel's Messiah. Toward the end of this year, when a lot of conversations are bound to turn toward New Year's Eve plans, I might be saying, "We're going back to Tonga."
Tonga has three groups of islands, connected by air service and by an interisland ferry you do not want to go on. Tongatapu, by far the largest island in the entire chain, is in the southernmost group. The Vavau Group, whose mountainous, tightly clustered islands and protected harbor have made it a center for what the locals call yachties, is in the north. It's reachable by flights from Fiji and Samoa as well as from Nukualofa. The Haapai Group, the least developed, is in the center. Try to get off Tongatapu, if only by launch to a nearby island.
Even if they don't get around to changing the carpet, the International Dateline (676/23411, fax 676/23410; doubles from $88)—which is air-conditioned and located on the harbor, a short walk from downtown—remains the logical place to stay in Nukualofa. Other choices include the Harbor View Motel (676/25488, fax 676/25490; doubles from $40) and the Friendly Islander Hotel (676/238-810, fax 676/24199; doubles from $40), both on the harbor.
The resort on Atata, which is a 20-minute boat ride from Nukualofa, is called the Royal Sunset (676/24923, fax 676/21254; doubles from $80). Sometimes spoken of as the nicest place to stay in the kingdom, it has a rather dramatic open-air dining room and pleasant, if simple, cabins. The Fafa Island Resort (676/22800, fax 676/23592; doubles from $100), also off Nukualofa, offers not only overnight accommodations but day trips for lunch and snorkeling.
On Vavau, the Paradise International Hotel (676/70211, fax 676/70184; doubles from $35) has what some say are the best rooms in the kingdom and an excellent view over Port of Refuge Harbour, but no beach. The smaller Tongan Beach Resort (phone and fax 676/70380; doubles from $66) offers diving and snorkeling. Some simple places have been built recently on islands accessible only by boat. A lot of people visiting Vavau, of course, stay on boats.
In the Haapai Group, Sandy Beach (phone and fax 676/60200; doubles from $86) is a basic but lovely resort with a dozen cabins by a terrific beach.
The upmarket restaurant in Nukualofa is the Seaview (676/23709; dinner for two $46), run by a German couple in an attractive house not far from the palace. We had a good lunch at Little Italy (676/21563; lunch for two $20), an informal place down the road that has outdoor tables and a Tongan-style interior decorated with pictures of both Sylvester Stallone and the pope. Hotel restaurants are permitted to open on Sunday, and on the Sabbath a lot of people make their way to the Good Samaritan Inn (676/41022; dinner for two $27), which serves fish in an outdoor restaurant overlooking a beach.
Tongan tapa cloth still isn't expensive—probably between $50 and $100 for a piece large enough to cover that wall you've never known what to do with in the upstairs hall. Tapa is usually available at the Talamahu market in downtown Nukualofa (where, particularly on Saturdays, there is a rich variety of foodstuffs you won't recognize) or at the flea market, held at the harbor on Saturdays only. Tapa is also sold in craft stores. The Friendly Islands Marketing Co-operative (Alaivahamamao Bypass, Maufanga; 676/21988, fax 676/21928) will stuff yards of it into the laundry basket of your dreams and send the entire package to you by sea-mail, which is apparently quite reliable as long as you're in no hurry.
Supplies in Tongan schools aren't always abundant. The Friendly Islands Bookstore in Nukualofa gives a 10 percent discount on any items visitors buy for a local school.